Hundreds of dollars spent on a collectible vintage Leica, and it doesn’t work. What to do? Naturally, take it apart!
This is the camera I picked up on eBay. it’s a Leica IIIc, made in 1941. I thought I’d gotten a pretty good deal – my McKeown’s guide lists this particular model as being worth $300-$450, and the lens is maybe another $80. This particular camera is not in ideal shape – the covering is cracked and coming off, the lens aperture adjustment is pretty gummed up and hard to work – but otherwise it looks pretty good, especially considering that cameras of this time frame often have chrome issues due to wartime shortages in Germany at the time. But it represents some of the finest workmanship in camera manufacturing, and I was excited to run some film through one.
But what makes this particular camera special is the shutter. It appears that serial numbers 362,401 thru 379,225 were produced with either one or both shutter curtains made from some sort of mystery red cloth reputed to have been an experimental material received from Kodak. The Leicas use a shutter made of two pieces of cloth that move from one side to the other when released, and the space between them (based on your shutter speed settings) is what allows the film to be exposed to the light. During the war, Leica apparently used this red material until they ran out of it, and then switched to black parachute cloth. Later, when owners would turn their cameras in for repair, Leica would replace the shutters for some reason. So of the 14,000+ cameras made in this way, relatively few survive today. Consequently, the value goes up to $600 or more.
The cool thing about buying old cameras of this quality is that they retain their value. So you can buy one, use it for awhile, and if you get tired of it, sell it for what you paid (or more).
So I took mine out for a spin….and here is how all pretty much all of the pictures turned out:
Needless to say, Leicas that take pictures like this tend not to retain their value as much! Having paid $400 (I’m guessing you were wondering), I went back to the seller, who had claimed the shutter was operational, and we negotiated a partial refund of $100. It’s hard to say what’s fair – but I’m guessing that, accurately listed on eBay, the camera would have gone for no more than $200-$300, purely as a “shelf queen” collectible.
So what is wrong with the camera? Is it salvageable, or will it be consigned to a bookshelf forever? A bit of web searching revealed the likely problem: the shutter that is supposed to cover the film when the camera is in its “cocked” position is full of tiny holes. So with the help of this website, I decided to go in for a closer look:
This camera loads from the bottom, so taking it apart was the only way to get a closer look at both sides of the shutter curtains. This is the front of the shutter that sits in front of the film when the camera is not cocked:
I was surprised to see, when I flipped it over, that it appeared someone had already tried painting some sort of black substance over the back of the curtain, and it had flaked off in several places. Also, some parts of it scraped off sort of like wax – almost semi-liquid. It looks like black paint.
When I cocked the camera, I could see that the other shutter curtain is also red, but the red side faces the other way (toward the back of the camera). And some sort of gummy substance had been spread on that as well (glue?)
And the forward-facing side of that shutter is cream/manila-colored, just like the other shutter (where the black paint has peeled off) and someone appears to have attempted daubing paint (?) on this side to repair pinholes as well.
The good part about taking apart a Leica IIIc like this is it allows you to shine a light through the shutter, and really see just how much is reaching the film when it should be fully covered. The first photo is the shutter curtain that shows when the camera is not cocked – the repair job that was previously attempted appears to have worked, as light only gets through in the places where it has flaked off. So maybe a touch-up with a similar substance would do the trick?
The other shutter curtain, however, was in horrendous shape – and fully explained why I had gotten the pictures I was getting. I include another photo below for reference, with the contrast amped up a bit so you can see the areas where light is being let through more clearly.
After a bit of rotating and flipping to get the image to be aligned the same as the shutter, you can clearly see that the red cloth and the black paint, or whatever it is, do a pretty effective job blocking the light.
So the big question is, if I paint only the non-red side of the shutters (and let them dry/cure properly), can I preserve (somewhat) the “collectible” nature of the camera, while making it actually usable? Am I increasing or decreasing the value of the camera? I think painting over the red part would be a shame, but I want to make sure all the pinholes are properly sealed. So the material I decide to use will be key.
If you’re interested in how this turns out, stay tuned – I’ll follow up once I’ve taken a stab at this and put it back together.